Snapshots from Rwanda: Financing Green Growth

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[Esther Shears, ERG graduate student]

Three weeks into my trip to Rwanda this summer, I checked in to my last Airbnb. It was a lovely home in Kimihurura, a popular neighborhood for expats in the capital city, Kigali. My host greeted me and invited me to sit out on the back porch of the home as the late afternoon sun streamed through the trees surrounding us. He was a middle-aged French Canadian who worked in security. Once he learned that I was graduate student, here on a scoping trip to study land use and climate finance, he didn’t waste any time in sharing his opinions about the country with me.

“There’s no point to development work; they just won’t ever change.” He shared anecdote after anecdote with me, admitting that he was just glad to have someone to speak to (and swear in) English with.

“I see a guy pushing his old bike up the main road, it’s piled high with bunches of plaintains, and then he pulls a new iPhone out of his back pocket…” 

“[NGOs] want to provide water filters or offer clean water to homes, but families still prefer to collect their water from a common well because that’s where social life happens.”

“I’ve heard street fights break out with tribal slurs being used… you know it’s illegal to use the words Hutu and Tutsi but I still hear it in these cases.”

This went on for a while. I was a guest in his home. I just nodded along, exhausted from the four-hour long, hot and cramped bus ride I’d taken from Gisenyi that morning. If I had met him within my first few days in Rwanda, I might have been a little more surprised by his brazenness. But in just three weeks, I had seen and learned enough to know that my host wasn’t the only one that saw the tensions apparent in a modernizing, post-conflict society.

For a portion of my trip, I stayed in Gisenyi, a city on the north shore of Lake Kivu that sat directly on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. I spent most of my time there learning about the work of Inyenyeri, a Rwandan social enterprise seeking to bring clean cooking to both urban and rural communities with efficient fuel-pellet stoves.

The day that we took a field visit to interview rural customers also was the one day of the month that the villages in that region hold community meetings in the afternoon. As we turned off the perfectly paved and well-maintained main road connecting Gisenyi to Kigali onto one of the bumpiest roads I have ever encountered, the Inyenyeri staff jokingly introduced to me to the “African massage”: a ride in the back seat of a tightly-packed truck. On our way up the hillside, passing through several small villages, I could see groups of people congregated for these community meetings. When we finally reached our destination, it seemed to be the highest point around the region. The particular village we visited was selected by the company to start rural sales specifically because of how difficult it is to reach: “If we can make our business model work here, it can work in any rural village.”

I was interested in learning how the land was allocated throughout the community. The decisions were made long ago by the local village council – the best soil went to farming, and then the other areas were split between timber plots and housing. In recent years, more intense rainy seasons have raised concerns about flooding and erosion, and inspired nation-wide efforts to reinforce the terraces. As one of the most population-dense countries in the world, Rwanda has very little land left untouched.

Our interviews extended into dusk, and we had to hurry back to the truck to begin our long journey back to Gisenyi. Sandrine, Inyenyeri’s Communications and Marketing Manager, who served as our translator for the field visit, couldn’t stop gushing about how good the grilled corn was in these hillside villages. The community meetings had ended, and all the villages we passed on our way up had come alive as the sun set (which occurs promptly around 6pm that close to the Equator). Everyone was out and about, congregating around the open fires of crackling corn. I munched delightedly on a cob as Sandrine exclaimed over and over again, “I LOVE maize!

I was back in Kigali for the last few weeks of my stay. I spent the bulk of my time working in coffee shops, along with every other expat and white person, each undoubtedly working for one of the many NGOs sprinkled throughout the capital. You could bet without hesitation that any building in Kigali that stood more than three stories high was housing an NGO office. One of my goals for this trip was to meet with employees of these various development-oriented organizations. Through my conversations, I gleaned a few trends of how this industry operates in Rwanda.

Despite working towards a common mission of social good, a for-profit company isn’t necessarily afforded the same privileges in the development space as a non-profit: “If you were an NGO we would have two cars and staff dedicated to you,” a UNHCR worker reportedly told Inyenyeri while setting up their partnership at the Kigeme Refugee Camp.

Conversely, a One Acre Fund employee talked about how there were long-term opportunities for organizations functioning as social enterprises, but less so for non-profits: “As an NGO, you are aiming to make yourself irrelevant.” Social enterprises also tended to have higher proportions of non-international staff members involved in leadership positions within the organizations, perhaps reflecting an intention to remain integrated with the community.

It is important to build close relationships with local authorities. One employee from the social enterprise Jibu commented, “Since our water filters use WASAC water, we work directly with the water resource management… I would consider them as ‘partners’ – it’s important to have a good relationship with the government.”

Over 85% of the country works in agriculture, and climate change is already increasing instances of drought and flooding. At FONERWA (Rwanda’s climate fund), I spoke with Bright Ntare about the realities to come: “It’s not just energy and land-use work [we do], we’ll need to move people out of high-risk areas, so affordable housing is important to include… we need to consider employment opportunities in the long-term, because agriculture will decline with climate change. It just will. So, we are working on ideas for job trainings in other employment sectors. Finally, we are well aware that outside funds will not always be there.” People within the Rwandan government are already considering long-term strategies for funding climate-resilience.

My last fact-finding mission in Kigali took me out to Question Coffee, a project of the Relationship Coffee Institute. I’d flown past the Sustainable Harvest Rwanda sign while sitting on the back of a motorcycle (“moto”) on my way home one day, and suddenly made the connection between Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers and the Question Coffee I had been drinking all summer from cafes around the city. The main café and educational center were not far from me, so I hopped on a moto on one of my last days and set out to experience the “best pour-over coffee in Rwanda” for myself. The Relationship Coffee Institute provides training for women-centric coffee cooperatives that promote transparent trading practices, practices for higher-quality coffee production, and higher prices (and therefore higher worker wages).

Just like many of the organizations I encountered during my time in Rwanda, Question Coffee presents a classic development success-story. I know that for every success-story there are many not-so-successful stories of similar projects. The uncertainties and complexities of development efforts are not new to me, having studied this work since my undergraduate years.

What struck me was the presence of a clear ambition for growth amidst a cloud of development fatigue. The positive energy and hope for the future were easy to see: in the recently-opened Kigali Convention Center, in the eagerness of anyone to talk with me about their work, and in the stated objectives of Vision 2020. But my awareness of the fatigue grew slowly, and finally came together during my visit to the Rwandan Genocide Memorial on one of the last days of my stay.

After the Rwandan Genocide, there was a huge influx of foreign aid and direct investment, not just for post-conflict reconstruction, but for broad development efforts in every sector of the country. Now, more than 20 years later, the aid is still coming, growth is still occurring, but for how much longer? In 2011, twenty percent of the country’s gross annual came from foreign aid. Since 2012, foreign direct investment has consistently surpassed 200 million USD annually. Yet, the country also appears to be reconciling with the reality that despite significant amounts of foreign investment, it won’t meet all of its Vision 2020 development goals. An excerpt from a 2018 IMF report on Rwanda’s progress summaries this tension between high growth goals and likely waning foreign development efforts:
“Building on its notable progress toward development objectives, the authorities are crafting a revised medium-term development strategy with the goal of achieving middle income status by 2035. To help achieve this objective, it will be important to regain momentum in mobilizing domestic revenue as a reliable source of financing for development.”
My conversation with Bright Ntare of FONERWA echoed this sentiment. He expressed excitement for all the work the climate fund hopes to achieve, while also acknowledging the significant challenge the country faces: how do we finance green growth when international flows run dry?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Esther, for giving your readers a glimpse into this very complex world. A very interesting read, indeed.


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